Many pundits claim that the collective West failed to deter Putin from invading Ukraine as a result of lack of resolve and an unwillingness to provide Kyiv with sufficient arms prior to the outbreak of war. Such advocates believe that the key to deterring China from attacking Taiwan is to be more aggressive towards Beijing and rapidly provide Taipei with heavy weapons.
The reality is almost exactly the opposite, and if such thinking is converted to official U.S. policy, the chances of war will be higher, not lower, for Taiwan.
One of the fundamental problems the United States currently has in effectively dissuading opponents from given actions is in defining the term “deterrence” in the first place. Merriam Webster defines the root word “deter” as meaning “to turn aside, discourage, or prevent from acting.” We have ignored the first segment of that definition almost entirely, choosing instead to zealously adhere to the last phrase. To turn an adversary aside could be accomplished by a wide range of diplomatic and economic tools; “prevent from acting” has come to mean almost exclusive military means.
Many believe that if only the United States had been more forthcoming in providing large scale offensive weapons to Ukraine that doing so would have deterred Putin from invading in February 2022. These same pundits believe that the best way to prevent a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is to “correct” the error of Ukraine and now arm Taiwan “to the teeth” as rapidly as possible.
Their contention is clear: provide enough support and arms to Taiwan and Beijing will be dissuaded from trying to seize the island because Xi will calculate the military cost would be too great. The problem with this viewpoint is that the very basis of the argument is wrong: Putin would not have been deterred even if we’d have sent more weapons to Ukraine earlier.
To the contrary, doing so would likely have compelled him to act earlier.
Events of 2014 in which the legally elected government in Ukraine was forced from power – a move supported by the United States – and was replaced by a Western-friendly leader, alarmed the Kremlin. When the Ukrainian military resorted to violence to suppress the eastern Ukrainian citizens who rebelled against the newly installed Ukrainian leader, battle lines were drawn between eastern and western Ukraine, and a civil war broke out. Russian military personnel and equipment provided support to the Russian-speaking population in its battle with the Kyiv regime.
NATO, meanwhile, continued to ignore the warnings Putin had been giving since 2008 about the dangers of allowing Ukraine to join the Western military alliance. In June 2021, the official NATO communique declared “(w)e reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance.”
When Russian forces starting building up on Ukraine’s borders towards the end of that year, Putin said he was looking to make “concrete agreements” with NATO that Ukraine would not be invited to the alliance. “This is more than serious for us,” Putin warned, adding that if no agreements were made, Russia would take “adequate military-technical measures” in response. Days later NATO leaders authoritatively responded to Putin’s words.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg openly stated to Zelensky at a press conference that regardless of any warnings from Russia, NATO was already “training and advising your armed forces, participating in joint exercises, and providing equipment” – unambiguously communicating to Putin that the Nato-ization of Ukraine was already well underway. To remove any doubt as to the objective of such support, Stoltenberg defiantly added, “I was actually present at the NATO Summit in Bucharest in 2008, when all Allies agreed that Ukraine will become a member of NATO. And we stand by that decision.”
It appears that Putin believed Stoltenberg, as two months later Russia invaded Ukraine with the avowed purpose of keeping NATO out of Ukraine and off Russia’s border. All the tough talk by NATO and the United States, all the training, supplies of weapons, and promises to extend alliance membership to Kyiv did not deter Putin from invading. In large measure, the fear of seemingly inevitable NATO entrance into Ukraine fueled the invasion. There is every reason to believe the same negative dynamic would play out between China and Taiwan if the West pushes for more and larger military support to Taipei.
In trying to convey toughness to Beijing, the United States has increased its defiant engagement on an official level with the government in Taipei. We have increased our military presence by expanding bases in Japan, Guam, the Philippines, and Palau. The U.S. Navy seeks billions in additional funding for strengthening military capacity in the Indo-Pacific, and the U.S. Congress is now seeking to arm Taiwan “to the teeth.” All of these actions are claimed to be in the express service of deterring China from invading Taiwan.
It is almost certain to produce the opposite effect.
Xi Jinping is equally aggressive in building military capacity to retake the island and has expressly designed his military to defeat the U.S. Navy and Air Force should they intervene in a Taiwan scenario. Just as Putin built capacity to prevent NATO’s efforts to strengthen Ukraine so it could join the alliance, Xi has been building military capacity to wage war with the U.S. Armed Forces if we choose to fight over Taiwan.
Had NATO taken a more diplomatic approach prior to February 2022, there would very likely never have been a war and tens of thousands of Ukrainians would still be alive today. Similarly, if the U.S. would spend at least as much effort diplomatically as it is militarily in its dealings with Beijing and Taipei, there war would be very unlikely there as well.
China sees first-hand how devastating war has been for Russia and is in no rush to likewise suffer. But Xi may well calculate his fear of a de facto alliance between Taiwan and the U.S. is worse than the damage China would suffer in a fight to keep America away from its shores. It is vital that Washington have more in its international kit bag besides threats or use of military power. China is no longer a developing nation that can be cowed by threats from the powerful U.S. Military.
The policy of “strategic ambiguity” has helped keep the peace in the Taiwan Straits for many decades. The U.S. has maintained robust economic engagement with Taipei and even had lo-level diplomatic engagement, which did not unduly arouse Chinese fears. The objective today should be to prevent war, not to push for real or de facto independence for Taipei. It is increasingly clear that the more we build military capacity within striking distance of China, the greater we push official government relations with Taipei, and the more aggressively we push arms to Taiwan, the more likely war becomes. Far from deterring China, this will almost certainly provoke them to war.
In a perfect world, Taiwan would be free and independent, charting its own course in global affairs, free from threat of invasion from its larger neighbor. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a violent and deeply flawed world. Our objectives, therefore, should be to take the most prudent measures possible to both deter China from launching a war and encourage Taipei to find a way to coexist with Beijing. There is no suggestion that Taiwan becomes subservient to China. Only that they choose to peacefully coexist in an imperfect world.
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A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis